By Rollo Ross and Alan Devall
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) - Rescue crews with dogs and scanners dug through waist-deep mud in an affluent stretch of Southern California's coast on Wednesday, searching for about two dozen people missing after mudslides that killed at least 15.
The mudslides in Santa Barbara County, triggered by a downpour on Tuesday, destroyed 100 single-family homes, damaged hundreds of other buildings and injured 28 people, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
Historic hotels and homes of celebrities including Oprah Winfrey were also hit by the walls of mud that roared through valleys sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest, which draw the wealthy and the well-known with their natural beauty and proximity to sprawling Los Angeles.
Verdant hillsides that once gave estates a sense of seclusion were largely denuded by last month's historic wildfires. That set the stage for the massive mud and debris slides that sent boulders crashing into homes, turned highways into raging rivers and shredded cars into nearly unrecognizable tangles of metal.
One resident of Toro Canyon described being awakened before dawn Wednesday when his home began shaking and he heard sounds like those of a freight train and snapping wood.
"What they were was a bunch of trees that were being snapped by the mud and boulders and debris that were sliding down Toro Canyon," said Jonathan Reichlen, 45, who owns an urban landscaping company.
"I just kind of waited it out because I did not want to go down to Toro Canyon while ... the mudslide was actually going on," Reichlen said in a phone interview.
Reichlen said he had emergency food supplies and water but no hot food, and was trying to figure out a way to get safely out of the canyon.
About 500 law enforcement officers and firefighters hunted for the missing in mud-covered neighborhoods on Wednesday, using dogs, 14 helicopters and thermal imaging equipment, officials said.
"We are still very much in active search-and-rescue mode," Chris Elms, a spokesman for state firefighters, said in a phone interview. He warned the current death toll of 15 confirmed fatalities could rise. "That's a fear. We are still very hopeful that we will locate people alive."
FIRE AND MUD
It was the latest blow to a region still rebuilding after the wildfires.
"First we got burned out at our ranch that caught on fire and now we're flooding, so the last month has been pretty bad," said Charles Stoops, as he stood in front of his house, which was surrounded in mud 3 feet, or nearly a meter, deep.
Officials have ordered residents in a large swath of Montecito to stay in their homes so that rescuers can better go about their work.
Helicopters were ferrying people out of the Romero Canyon neighborhood, where about 300 people were cut off after a massive debris flow blocked the road into the area.
The area has long attracted California's elite. Former President Ronald Reagan and pop star Michael Jackson both owned ranches in the hills near Santa Barbara.
The mudslides closed several historic hotels, including The Four Seasons Biltmore, which had just reopened on Monday after repairing wildfire damage. The courtyard of the 90-year-old Montecito Inn, built by silent movie actor Charlie Chaplin, was filled with a thick crust of debris driven by the slides.
The disaster followed a violent rainstorm that dumped as much as 6 inches (15 cm) of water onto areas northwest of Los Angeles, where the ground was left vulnerable to flooding after trees and other vegetation burned last month.
Media mogul Oprah Winfrey posted videos on Instagram showing her wading through nearly knee-deep mud on her Montecito property and later inspecting the damage.
"There used to be a fence right here. That's my neighbor's house. Devastated," Winfrey said as she stood, surrounded by debris.
Talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres posted a picture of a mud and debris-filled street outside her Montecito home on Twitter, saying she did not yet know the condition of the house itself.
Former tennis star Jimmy Connors said in a tweet that he and his wife, Patti, had been evacuated by helicopter from their home in the posh hillside community.
The number of fatalities surpassed the death toll from a California mudslide on Jan. 10, 2005, when 10 people were killed as a hillside gave way in the town of La Conchita, less than 20 miles (30 km) south of the latest disaster.
Last month's wildfires, including the Thomas Fire, which became the largest in California history, not only burned away trees, grass and shrubs that held soil in place, but also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Gina Cherelus and Peter Szekely in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; writing by Scott Malone; editing by Chris Reese and Tom Brown)